The Self is an Illusion Created by the Brain

Deric Bownd’s Mind Blog
His Lectures and Writings

Buddhists, with their well-developed meditation skills, have known for a long time that the Self is an illusion created by the Mind. Even with my mediocre meditation skills, I have been been convinced of this over and over. The Mind is always doing crazy things – and when we go to sleep, it still makes up crazy dreams. Where is the Self in all this chatter?

But of course Buddhists knew nothing of the brain. It is not an easy organ to study, being just a mass of mushy gray stuff.

I was not until the advent of computers that we finally realized we could consider the mind as a information processing device – a far different kind of device, but an information processor far more powerful in its own right. I worked for a robotic company for awhile, and they were proud of the image processing their robots could perform.

For example, at a cookie factory women would pick up cookies coming out of the oven on a wide stainless steel sheet, and pack them into fancy boxes. They soon developed repetitive stress injuries from the the same thing over and over. This was costing the company money. So they installed a row of robots where the women had been, equipped with solid-state cameras and a computer to manage the whole thing. The robots, under computer control, would figure out where the cookies were, which robot would be the best one to pick up each cookie, pick up each cookie, put it nicely in a box, and when it was full, grab another box and start over.

It was an impressive sight, all those robots working together, and it was one of their most impressive videos. But the company always wanted them to work harder and faster – does this sound familiar? So a consulting engineer fine-tuned the program that ran them. He installed the program, it it seemed to be working fine, so he left. Not long after he left, the robots went crazy, and started throwing cookies all over the place.

But I see I have digressed, let me get back to the subject: the Self and the Brain.

For a long time the relationship between the Mind and the Brain was a mystery, and many were convinced it always would remain a mystery. But recent brain research is beginning to piece it together. The brain is composed of various sub-units, each of which has it own special job. And these are connected together, in ways we do not yet understand very well, so they can coordinate in the performance of larger tasks: for example, vision processing.

The interesting thing is how consciousness fits into this. Consciousness seems be be a recent add-on, and it is not aware of much that is going on – as Freud pointed out. This means the Self is not in control as much as it thinks it is – again, something we have known for a long time, but are reluctant to admit. Religiously, we believe we have a Soul and Free Will. But even in Jesus’ time possession by foreign spirits was common, which made it puzzling to figure out what was really going on.

It is now becoming clear: the Self is an illusion created by the Brain – but a very important illusion. It lets us create a sense of Time and Meaning – which we cannot live without.